Anybody with some rudimentary formation in Catholic religious education might have encountered, at some point, the idea that we have two “sources” of the so-called “deposit of the the faith” (the content of the faith): Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Sometime in the transition from the High Middle Ages to early Modernity, the concept of “Divine Revelation” came to be equated with the depositum fidei. According to this system, the Creeds, the dogmatic pronouncements, conciliar decrees, etc., were all subsumed under the umbrella term “revelation”, such that “revelation” meant “the collection of revealed truths”. In time, it even became common to call Scripture by that same term “revelation”.
In the mid-twentieth century, an important shift occurred. In the wake of the ressourcement movement which rediscovered afresh the vibrant theology of the Patristic and medieval eras, a young upstart scholar named Fr. Ratzinger gained critical insights during his close study of Bonaventure as part of his habilitationsschift. What he found was that, in the Middle Ages, theology had no concept of “revelation” as identified with the depositum fidei. Revelation is not an object; instead, re-vel-ation refers to the action of God upon men that re-veals or un-veils some obstacle to the apprehension of truth. Without the participation of man, there is no revelation; without a person to receive revelation, no “unveiling” has occurred. Man, not the content of faith, is the object of revelation.
In the buildup to the Second Vatican Council, various draft texts were produced by the preparatory commissions as starting points for future discussions during the Council itself. These drafts, called schemata, were no doubt products of the neoscholastic school then dominant in Rome. They had a solid foundation and were well articulated, but their approach remained at odds with the fresh dynamism offered by the ressourcement school which had gained much traction in Germany and France. The schema on Divine Revelation (the outline of what would later become the Council’s dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum) was subtitled de fontibus revelationis— “on the sources of revelation”. The draft had retained the neoscholastic concept of Scripture and Tradition as “sources” of revelation.
On 10 October 1962 (the day before the opening of the Council), Fr. Ratzinger delivered an address, at the request of Cardinal Frings, to the German-speaking bishops staying at Santa Maria dell’Anima near Piazza Navona. The topic was revelation. He reiterated to them his findings on the subject: that “revelation” is the action of God, and that Scripture and Tradition were not “sources” in the strict sense (Scripture and Tradition do not “cause” the action of God). Rather, Scripture and Tradition are the two modes by which God transmits his revelation. Thus, it would be less accurate to speak of “the sources of revelation”; rather, we should speak of Divine Revelation itself.
This shift in thinking sparked some hefty debates, with certain opponents fearing in Ratzinger’s idea a possible subjectivization of the truth. Dei Verbum was promulgated in 1965 as one of the Council’s last documents, three years after Ratzinger’s address to the German bishops. In the end, had Ratzinger’s idea survived the polemics of the Council? One only need to check Dei Verbum‘s final subtitle for the answer: it was no longer de fontibus revelationis but de divina revelatione.
This idea, enshrined in the Council, recovered the ancient sense of God as continually operating in history. His work is not frozen in the books of the Bible; rather, the Holy Spirit continues to illuminate the minds of the faithful through the passing of the ages. The means by which the supreme Truth is communicated comes, firstly, through Scripture, which is the standard par excellence of Christian life. Secondly, the Truth manifested in Scripture is handed from generation to generation, in means appropriate to each era, through the continuous ministry of the Church. This “handing on” is Tradition (from Latin tradire, “to hand over”). God is operative through historical processes in each.
Had he not become Pope, Joseph Ratzinger would have still left an indelible mark on theology and on the Church. As a peritus at the Second Vatican Council, his ideas struck a resonant note with many of influential Council Fathers like Cardinal Frings, Cardinal König, and Archbishop Wojtyla; his thoughts were thus integrated into the Council’s documents. Thanks be to God for the gift of this theologian, for he helped the Church discover anew the living dynamism of revelation– that revelation is not an object contained in formulas, creeds, and textbooks. Rather, the definitions decreed by the Church are the fruit of revelation, the result of a careful discernment by man and the Church of the ever-present action of God the Father who, through Christ and in the Spirit, continually breathes life into the world.